An Englishman’s Visit to Capt. R. E. Lee.
By Gerald Smythe, Honorary Member R. E. Lee Camp, No. 1, C. V., Richmond, Va.
The late Capt. R. E. Lee was for some days my host during a visit which I paid to Virginia in the months of May and June, 1909.
As the train drew into Romancoke Station I inquired of the conductor if Captain Lee was at the station. He pointed to a tall gentleman standing under the shade of the trees which border the track at this point, saying: “He’s standing right there.” I do not think that, even failing this indication, I could have mistaken the individuality of the person in question, so strikingly did he appear to me to resemble the portraits which I had seen of his father. I made myself known to him, receiving the heartiest of greetings, and we were friends at once and for all time. He had brought what is, I believe, known as a “buckboard” wagon down to meet me, and we had a very pleasant drive through the pine woods—which much reminded me of those in the neighborhood of Leith Hill, in the county of Surrey, in the old country—up to his house. This is a very pretty “frame” building, put up by the Captain himself, standing in beautifully wooded grounds stretching down to the Pamunkey. A most kindly welcome from Mrs. Lee and her daughters made me feel at home at once and, indeed, as if I had known the whole family for years. We spent the afternoon in the grounds chatting and listening to the songs of the birds, amongst which that of the mocking bird, quite new to me, was prominent; and as the darkness drew on, the melancholy cry of the whippoorwill, heretofore also a stranger to me, broke the evening calm. The morning brought me another fresh experience, the clear, distinct call, “Poor bob-white,” then a rapid flash of brilliant blood-red plumage through the bushes betokened the presence of a red, or cardinal, bird, whilst high in the clear blue sky soared a turkey buzzard.
Church at West Point or a country drive were the alternatives put before me this morning. I most unhesitatingly chose the latter, and the whole party drove off to Custis Pond, a most lovely lake shaded by beautiful trees which were mirrored in the still, clear waters. I had my camera with me and secured two very pretty pictures of the lake, also one of an old Virginia draw well, with a group of colored women and children standing by it, and of the quaint, old wooden building known as Custis Mill.
A pavilion by the side of the lake forms the headquarters of a fishing club established at Richmond, which had been holding a picnic on the previous day. Evidences were not wanting of this festivity, and I observed that, as on the Thames at home, so here in Virginia, fishing is a thirsty sport.
Another engagement, the Oakwood memorial celebration, called me back to Richmond on the next day; but I returned to Romancoke at the end of May for a somewhat longer visit. On this occasion I drove into West Point several times with Captain Lee. This struck me as being quite a picturesque little country town, its main street planted with trees on each side, thus forming a pleasant boulevard. Captain lee told me that in the yard attached to the Baptist chapel are two ancient grave stones, one bearing an inscription, now undecipherable, to a British ship’s captain who was laid to his rest there in the seventeenth century. The huge piles of oyster shells stacked in the yards and wharves of the various depots on the river bank would indeed afford a happy hunting ground to the street urchins in London, who cry, “Please remember the grotto,” at the opening of the oyster season is one of the few remaining traditions of the London pavements. On one of our drives Captain Lee pointed out some earthworks which had formed part of a tete-de-pont constructed by the Yankees during their occupation of West Point at the time of McClellan‘s campaign in the Peninsula. The roads in this district are well-nigh beyond description. They seemed to consist largely of ruts and holes, corduroyed here and there with pine logs and in other places simply cobbled with brushwood. “They served our fathers, and they will serve us” appears to be the normal attitude of the Virginians toward them.
To a very great extent the roads in this neighborhood are cut through woods, and altogether the country gives a stranger a very good idea of the conditions under which campaigning in Eastern Virginia was carried on. When it rained (and it can rain in Virginia) the roads were converted into sloughs, pretty well bottomless in places, and one wonders how men could move along them, to say nothing of horses, guns, and wagons. The horses would often be belly-deep in mud, and the vehicles sunk up to their axles. Then, with the countryside practically covered with forest and jungle, it was impossible for either side to see the other during the fighting, so that all that could be done was to blaze away in the direction of the opposite fire. Captain Lee told me that if any one examined the trees during the bush fighting it would be found that a large percentage of the bullets struck above the ordinary level of a man’s head. Evidently there was sore need of the “fire discipline” enjoined by Parson Smith at Rorke’s Drift: “D—n it all, men; don’t swear, but aim low.” The Southerners, being more apt at wood-fighting than their adversaries, were, however, under these conditions able to discount to some extent the vastly superior numbers brought against them.
Captain Lee told me the following incident of the campaign in the Wilderness: Grant had gotten hold of a resident in that part of the country and had pressed him into his service as a guide, and it was from this gentleman that the story came. He was in Grant’s tent one day when the General, with his corps commanders and staff standing around, was stretched on the ground poring over a map of the surrounding country and tracing out with his finger the various roads and clearings. Presently he rose and, stretching himself, said: “Well, gentlemen, if we don’t hear his guns in five minutes, I have got him at last.” The words were scarcely out of his mouth when a most terrific cannonade burst forth. Grant slapped his hand on his thigh and said: “By—, he’s got me again.” And it is a fact that whenever and wherever Grant made a move in that campaign that he found Lee facing him.
Captain Lee had a profound admiration for the “plain” men who went into the ranks of the Confederate armies, such as small farmers and their sons and men of the artisan class. Theses had nothing to gain, nothing to hope for or to expect in the way of promotion, nor any reward for or recognition of their services. They formed the backbone of the army, but were leavened by a strong admixture of gentleman privates drawn from country gentleman privates drawn from country gentlemen and their sons, professors and students at the military institutes and universities, professional men of the three learned classes—clerical, legal, and medical—and, generally speaking, of all the well-to-do and educated members of the community. These took their places in the ranks and served in close communion with their humbler comrades, their only badge of superiority being their proud determination to observe the motto, Noblesse oblige, sharing with them all the dangers, sufferings, and privations that had to be undergone in a like spirit of cheerfulness and fortitude. All were animated by the same spirit of devotion to their country, fighting shoulder to shoulder in one common bond of brotherhood; and with a very full knowledge of the deeds of valor done by the British army in days past and present, I venture to assert that out of this amalgam was forged the finest weapon of war the world has ever seen—the Army of Northern Virginia.
Captain Lee had in his possession the very handsome presentation sword which his father was wearing at the surrender at Appomattox. It was not the General’s practice to wear a sword, and when on the eve of the abandonment of Richmond he role in and called at his house for it his family expressed some surprise and asked why he was taking it. He replied that he could not tell what was going to happen and rode off to meet with an even mind and unswerving front whatever fate had in store for him.
A pouring wet day confining us to the house one morning, Captain Lee beguiled the time by telling me some of his personal experiences. When the War between the States broke out he was a student at the University of Virginia, a boy eighteen years of age. Two companies were formed among the students, which were known respectively as the “Sons of Liberty” and the “Southern Guard,” to which latter young Lee belonged. They were drilled, armed, and uniformed by the State. The first-named wore red shirts with black collars and cuffs, the second blue shirts. The headdress in each case was the French kepi, red with a black band for the Sons of Liberty and blue for the Southern Guard. Both companies wore black pants. The boys received orders to join some of the State troops from Lynchburg at Strasburg and proceed thence to Winchester, the object of the expedition being to attack the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, where they hoped to secure the arms and ammunition there in store.
Not long after the boys started the authorities of the university, fearing that the whole establishment would be broken up, wire to the Governor begging him to recall them. He did so, but by that time the boys were well on their way.
The weather was hot, and the boys were wearing their Sunday boots of patent leather; so it is not a matter of surprise that the majority broke down on the march and had to be carried on wagons. The hardier ones, Captain Lee among them, continued to foot it, and on their arrival in Winchester they were received with open arms by the young ladies of the place, who gave the young heroes the best of times. On the approach of these doughty warriors the commandant at Harper’s Ferry abandoned the post, destroying such of the stores as he could, but leaving a goodly quantity of arms and ammunition to fall into the hands of the boys and their comrades. Captain Lee’s subsequent career in the army, first as a private in the Rockbridge Artillery and then in the cavalry, where he attained his commissioned rank, is doubtless well known to the readers of the Veteran and needs no comment from the writer of this article except so far as the remarkable position strikes him.
Here was the case of a man who was the son of the general commanding the Army of the Northern Virginia, who had only to ask to obtain what he desired. Yet there is no evidence whatever that is any way pressed that son’s advancement nor that the son sought to take the least advantage of this father’s position to push his claims for promotion. What better evidence could be required to prove the extreme modesty and lack of self-seeking which were such prominent characteristics of the Lee family?
When my visit came to an end it was with the very greatest regret that I bade farewell to my kind friends at Romancoke, and I am well assured that it was no mere figure of speech when Captain Lee spoke of me to Mrs. Lee as “Brother Smythe.” Although we had been in correspondence for some years, my personal acquaintance with “Rob” Lee was all too short. Yet it lasted long enough for me to form a very genuine affection for him (and who, indeed, that knew him had not?), and I am proud to think that the feeling was reciprocated. The news of his death brought very real grief to me. I shall always think of him as the highest type of that splendid race of men, the gentlemen of Old Virginia.
The preceding article was sent to the Veteran by Philip Alexander Bruce, a well-known writer, whose “Life of Gen. R. E. Lee” forms one of the American Crisis Biographies. Mr. Bruce writes from London, England, under date of April 3 and gives an interesting reference to this Englishman, Mr. Gerald Smythe, who is such an admirer of General Lee and whom he had been visiting at this home at Tunbridge Well. He says: “Mr. Smythe’s home is full of souvenirs of the Confederacy, with valuable autograph letters of General Lee, various pictures of him, and all the biographies which have been written of the General. His library contains all the principal works relating to the Confederacy, and he is never so happy as when talking on that subject. On the occasion of my arrival I found the Confederate flag flying in his grounds, and I was greeted in passing the first door with the strains of ‘Dixie’ and ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag.’ The table at luncheon was decorated with flowers representing the Confederate colors. I was greatly moved by his interest in the cause for which the South had fought and by his profound admiration for our heroes in gray. Mr. Smythe is a man of high position in England and very much respected.”